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To arrive in Singapore is to step into a world where the call to prayer competes with the bustle of capitalism; where old men play mah-jongg in the streets and white-clad bowlers send the ball flying down well-tended cricket pitches; where Chinese fortune-tellers and high-priced management consultants advise the same entrepreneur. This great diversity of lifestyles, cultures, and religions thrives within the framework of a well-ordered society. Singapore is a spotlessly clean—some say sterile—modern metropolis surrounded by green, groomed parks and populated by 4 million orderly and well-regulated people, including many foreigners.

Although the Malays, Chinese, and Indians account for 98% of Singapore’s population, other ethnic groups—from Eurasians to Filipinos and Thais—contribute significantly to the cultural mix. Understandably, the heritage of the British colonial stay is profoundly felt even though Singapore became fully independent in 1965.

Singapore Sights

The main island of Singapore is shaped like a flattened diamond, 42 km (26 mi) east to west and 23 km (14 mi) north to south. Near the northern peak is the causeway leading to peninsular Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur is less than four hours away by car. At the southern foot is Singapore city, with its gleaming office towers and working docks. Offshore are Sentosa and some 60 smaller islands—most of them uninhabited—that serve as bases for oil refining or as playgrounds or beach escapes from the city. To the east is Changi International Airport, connected to the city by a parkway lined for miles with amusement centers of one sort or another. Of the island’s total land area, more than half is built up, with the balance made up of parkland, farmland, plantations, swamp areas, and forest. Well-paved roads connect all parts of the island, and Singapore city has an excellent public transportation system.

The heart of Singapore’s history and its modern wealth are in Colonial Singapore. The area stretches from the skyscrapers in the financial district to the 19th-century Raffles and from the supermodern convention centers of Marina Square to the Singapore History Museum and Ft. Canning. Although most of old Singapore has been knocked down to make way for the modern city, in Colonial Singapore most major landmarks have been preserved, including early-19th-century buildings designed by Irish architect George Coleman.

Singapore Reviews

Other cultures might prize atmosphere, decor, and service over food, but in Singapore, the food’s the thing. Bistros, eating houses, fine restaurants, and hawker centers serving home-grown Nonya, and all other conceivable cuisines, attest to this simple fact: Singaporeans live to eat.

Sundays in Singapore can be an epicurean adventure with many upscale hotels—standouts are the Conrad International, Grand Hyatt, Four Seasons, and Hilton—offering lavish value brunches (usually noon-3 for around S$80 per person). Buffets with international dishes and free-flowing champagne, wine, or soda are standard. Always make reservations and clarify times and prices, since you may get a discount if you opt for soda over champagne. High tea is also served on weekends, and occasionally during the week, usually 3-6 for about S$25-S$35 without tax or service charge at several hotels; best bets include the Ritz-Carlton and the Tiffin Room at Raffles. Singapore’s spin on this British tradition comes with finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones, as well as Asian or Indian tidbits such as dim sum (a.k.a. dian xin), fried noodles, satays, and curry puffs.

Widespread building restoration in Singapore has given birth to several chic establishments, such as Au Jardin (French), a converted colonial residence in the botanical gardens; Flutes at the Fort (eclectic) atop Ft. Canning Park; and Saint Julien (French) in a converted boathouse overlooking the confluence of the Singapore River and the Straits of Malacca. Senso (Italian) on Club Street was formerly an ecclesiastical building, and Tanjong Pagar’s Blue Ginger (Nonya) and Chinatown’s Da Paolo e Judie (Italian) were once shophouses. Unique to Singapore, Penang, and Malaysia, shophouses were usually built by Southern Chinese migrants. The owners operated businesses on the ground floor and lived upstairs. Nineteenth-century shophouses are simple, bilevel buildings, but 20th-century structures are taller and more ornate. The most recognizable shophouse style, known as Chinese-Baroque, combines Georgian windows and cornices, plaster reliefs of Chinese elements, and detailed Malay wood carvings. Shophouses now very popular as homes and restaurant/bars.

Opportunities for waterside dining include the IndoChine Waterfront Restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum, the East Coast Seafood Centre’s no-frills seafood restaurants, and One Fullerton’s cafés, restaurants, and bars—highlights are the House of Sundanese Food and Pierside Kitchen and Bar. You can sample satay sticks with peanut sauce at the popular Satay Club under Esplanade Bridge (between Merlion Park and Waterboat House). Other noteworthy dining areas are Jalan Merah Saga in Holland Village—here you’ll find Michelangelo’s (Italian), Original Sin (vegetarian Mediterranean), Da Paolo Gastronomia (Italian), and Au Petit Salut (French)—and Chinatown’s Club Street, home to trendy Da Paolo e Judie (Italian) and L’Aigle d’Or (French).

For authentic, time-honored cooking minus the linen tablecloths, head to the ethnic enclaves. Several of mainland China’s provinces are represented among Chinatown’s eateries. Geylang has popular Malay and Indonesian hawker stalls. In Little India you can eat at no-frills, shophouse restaurants like Korma Vila and Banana Leaf Apolo, where you’ll be rubbing elbows with locals.

Singapore Hotel Reviews

Over the years Singapore has been transformed from a popular vacation destination to a conventioneers’ mecca teeming with tour groups and delegates. Singapore’s lodging has visibly changed to accommodate this clientele: extensive refurbishment and growth with more varied services has been the trend. Luxury still abounds, and there are still places where exceptional personal service hasn’t fallen by the wayside. Indeed, in 2004 Singapore was one of only three cities (along with Chicago and Bangkok) to have three of its hotels ranked in Travel & Leisure’s annual “100 World’s Best Hotels” poll. The hotels making the cut were the Four Seasons, Raffles, and the Ritz-Carlton Millenia.

Prices rival those in New York or London—a superior double room in a deluxe hotel can run more than S$400 a night; one with a private bath in a modest hotel, about S$150 a night. During conventions and the peak months of June through September and December, rooms are scarce, and prices rise. Still, there are enough discounts and deals that no thrifty visitor should ever have to pay the published price (if you use a travel agent, make sure that he or she asks for a discount). There are also budget hotels with rates less than S$95 a night. The Geylang area east of City Hall has many low-cost hotels with rooms between S$49 and S$100 a night. And if all you’re looking for is a bunk, walk along Bencoolen Street, where there are dormitory-style guest houses that charge no more than S$25 a night, although they seem to be on the way out. (For more information on affordable lodgings, contact the Singapore Tourism Board, or STB for its annually updated brochure “Budget Hotels.”)

Booking ahead—particularly for stays in June through September and December—will probably save you money and will definitely save you headaches. If, however, you gamble and arrive without reservations, the Singapore Hotel Association has two counters at Changi Airport that are staffed by people who can set you up with a room—often at a discount—with no booking fee.

The more expensive establishments offer such amenities as international direct dial (IDD) phones with bathroom extensions, TVs with international cable, room service, minibars, data ports for modems, no-smoking rooms or floors, in-room safes, and business and fitness centers loaded with the latest equipment. Several hotels have wireless Internet in common areas or in some executive rooms and suites. These hotels have facilities for travelers with mobility problems; however, some smaller budget hotels do not, so ask before you book. Some properties, particularly those in converted shophouses, have a few rooms that lack windows, so be sure to ask for one that has windows. All rooms have air-conditioning and private baths unless otherwise stated.

Singapore Nightlife

Nightclubs and discos in Singapore are glitzy and pricey, targeted chiefly at the young or those on the prowl, and are very, very loud, making conversation near impossible. The action stays focused on geographically separated clusters. The more established districts are still going strong: the lively Singapore River quayside scene (Boat, Clarke, and Robertson quays, together with Chinatown’s Tanjong Pagar district); the touristy hotel strip of Orchard Road; and the nineteenth-century former convent, the Chijmes complex, near the Singapore History Museum off Stamford and Bras Basah roads.

The sleazier, more colorful action on the east coast—from Kallang to Katong (e.g., the Joo Chiat Road strip around the old Joo Chiat Police Station and Dunman Market food center), and around Serangoon, out to Changi Village—gratifies with its rough-and-ready charms and authentic local food. In recent years, as authorities have eased up on the nightlife scene, so the sleaze quotient has escalated, although once-bawdy Bugis Street is now sanitized as New Bugis Street. Be aware that this underworld still exists in parts of Geylang, around the numbered lorongs (streets or lanes) off Geylang Road, and along Desker Road, off Jalan Besar, Serangoon.

Typically, red-light districts are illuminated by red lanterns and have large, backlit red-on-white house numbers. Soliciting for prostitution is illegal, but the deed itself isn’t; it’s actually tolerated, monitored, and contained, with most prostitutes registered and subject to regular medical checks. Perhaps uniquely in Southeast Asia, however, this scene doesn’t menace visitors who don’t want to get involved and it’s still closely monitored by the police.

If karaoke is what you seek, beware that it may come with many “extras” in the Singapore context. To some extent, there have always been intensely local (and usually Chinese) bars with “sexual action on the side.” In the past, these were merely darkly lit shops where patrons were relieved of large sums of money by obliging hostesses (and there are still some of these venues around). This genre has now been recast in the karaoke bar mold. One bizarre new feature of some bars, including several along the Mohamed Sultan stretch, is the specially widened bar counter, now custom-made for bar-top dancing, a government-sanctioned activity since August 2003.

The gay scene is also increasingly active and out of the closet, though technically illegal (cruisers beware entrapment). The relatively new trend of dedicated gay bars has continued apace and centers particularly on the Chinatown district of Tanjong Pagar.

Ethnic enclave bars are a new trend in Singapore. Indian pubs purvey Bollywood-style music, Hindi pop, hip-hop, and Punjabi-style bhangra dancing and Malay-oriented establishments serve the raw hard rock favored by young Malay Singaporeans. Catch the local band Unwanted playing at O’Reilly’s Irish Bar (not very Irish) at 86 East Coast Road, or stop in on a weeknight at the fabled Anywhere bar in Orchard’s Tanglin Centre to hear Malay-style rock music.

Jazz and the blues have always been minority interests in Singapore. With the lamented demise of Somerset’s, only a few venues have kept the flag flying: Harry’s Quayside Cafe (a.k.a. Harry’s Bar) and Jazz@Southbridge on Boat Quay for jazz, Crazy Elephant on Clarke Quay and Roomful of Blues on Prinsep Street for blues.

Singapore Shopping

If shopping were an Olympic sport, Singapore would be a nation of gold medalists. Brand worship and a growing disposable income have turned retail therapy into a national pastime. Servicemen in their fatigues carry luxury label paper bags, young girls clutch what looks like their body weight in purchases. On weekends the enterprising Sanctuary Bar on Orchard Road tends to those left behind by shoppers with their “Men-Minding Service.” Recently, United Overseas Bank launched a Visa mini credit card that can be worn on a necklace to facilitate the transaction process.

Singapore is brilliantly set up for shoppers within a centralized geographical area. Air-conditioned underground walkways run along most of Orchard Road as well as from Raffles City to Suntec and surrounding areas, but you may prefer to walk on the street if you dislike shuffling crowds. Khmer objets d’art, funky Indian housewares, Chinese calligraphy, Indonesian teak furniture, Thai silk, Indian spices, and Vietnamese lacquerware are as easy to find as cutting-edge laptop computers and digital cameras. If you’re loathe to lug your parcels around, you can send your purchases back to the hotel in a taxi (drivers are very trustworthy). Ask the store to call a taxi for you, then call your hotel to forewarn them. You’ll need to pay your fare, based on the driver’s estimation, when you hand over your parcels. Make sure your name, hotel, and room number are clearly marked. It’s always a good idea to give them a few extra dollars in case they get stuck in traffic.

If you’re interested in thumbing through haute couture, head to the Orchard and Scotts roads area to browse the designer boutiques at the Hilton Shopping Gallery, which is connected by an underground walkway to the Four Seasons Hotel arcade. The Paragon, a few blocks east, has local and imported high-end brands. The Heeren is on the next block, and across the road from The Paragon is the Wisma Atria. Trendy outfits can be found on the cheap at the Far East Plaza on Scotts Road.

Orchard Road is composed almost exclusively of mall after mall and is Singapore’s prime shopping strip, especially for clothes and shoes. It’s more than a mile long, but there are three MRT stops—Dhoby Ghaut, Somerset, and Orchard—that cover about two-thirds of it. The Tanglin Shopping Centre, with its distinctive antiques shops, is a 15-minute walk west from the Orchard MRT. A five-minute taxi ride from Tanglin are the former army officers’ quarters on Dempsey Road. Here you’ll find a selection of warehouses selling antiques, art, and rattan and teak furniture.

To avoid crowds and high prices, head for a suburban mall that’s next to an MRT station. Junction 8, for example, is beside the Bishan MRT, and Tampines Mall and Century Square are next to the Tampines MRT.

The shops around Temple and Sago streets in Chinatown, Serangoon Road in Little India, Joo Chiat Road in the East Coast’s Malay areas, and Arab Street market local baubles and tokens, herbal medicine, traditional housewares, antiques, religious sculptures, Chinese movie posters, and Indian tiffin boxes (stainless-steel lunch boxes). Generally speaking, the quality rivals that of the products found in the more touristy Orchard area, but because the overhead is much lower in the ethnic areas, the savings are passed on to you.

Bargain hunters should time a visit to Singapore with the annual mid-year Great Singapore Sale, which usually runs from late May through early June. During this eight-week extravaganza, all shopping centers and boutiques extend considerable discounts (up to 80%). This is a serious sale: zealous shoppers from around the region fly in, hotels and airlines offer bargain packages, and The Straits Times publishes supplements profiling the best deals. Hit the sale when it starts for the best bargains.

When you’re tired of shopping, you can take a break at any of the eateries sprinkled around the shopping areas. There are reflexologists set up in malls to soothe your aching feet—and prime them for more pavement pounding.

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